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Bad Days in the Balkans

If history were any indication, the Balkans seemed destined to have problems as anti-Communist sentiment moved through the Eastern Bloc. Nationalism had been a force to be reckoned with in the Balkans since even before World War I. For the last few generations, nationalist ideas in the Balkans had been dominated and suppressed by communism.

The hotbed of political tension in the 1990s would be Yugoslavia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had been ruled by Josip Tito since 1953. The Republic included the Socialist Republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Kosovo and Vojvodina were provinces of Serbia. With Tito’s death in 1980, the ties that bound Yugoslavia together were undone. Suddenly the multi-ethnic states held more power and autonomy than ever before. 

Would You Believe?

Tito actually was born Josip Broz. He adopted the codename “Tito" while working for an underground Communist organization in the 1930s.

As was so typical of postwar European diplomacy, the boundary lines had been drawn without much regard for the ethnicities living in the area. The entire region was a hodge-podge of ethnicities, many of them harboring ancient grudges. For example, within Bosnia-Herezegovina’s borders lived Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats or Croatians; none of the ethnicities had a majority. Within Serbia’s borders lived Croatians, Serbs, and even Hungarians. Quite a few Serbs lived in Croatia, too. Complicating matters even more was the presence of both Christianity and Islam. The standard of living declined across the board in the years between Tito’s death and 1989. The revolutions that broke out elsewhere in 1989 fueled the fire in the Balkans.

The Breakup of Yugoslavia

When Tito died, political leaders around the world watched Yugoslavia to see if it could withstand the ethnic rivalries that were sure to develop. The effective leader of Yugoslavia after Tito was Slobodan Milosevic (b. 1941), a Communist from Serbia. Milosevic’s immediate goal was to create a state dominated by Serbs, so he stirred up Serbian nationalism, alienating many other ethnic groups within Yugoslavia. He also reduced the autonomy enjoyed by Kosovo and Vojvodina.

After 10 years in power, Milosevic gave the Serb majority power over all of Yugoslavia by giving each person a vote rather than each republic a vote in the Yugoslav government. The Slovenians and Croatians were infuriated and left the proceedings of the 14th Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in disgust. AntiCommunist reform finally made its way to Yugoslavia and the republics created new governments within the Yugoslav system. At one extreme, Serbia and Montenegro created governments that favored a unified, Serb-dominated, Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia created governments that leaned toward declaring independence. The Yugoslav People’s Army wanted to declare martial law to restore order to the SFRY. Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Vojvodina voted for martial law; the others voted against the action. In 1991, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia declared independence. Also in 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina held the same referendum and decided to declare independence, but only because Bosnian Serbs there boycotted the vote. Thus the Yugoslav wars began, first in Slovenia and Croatia and then in Bosnia. The Yugoslav People’s Army, with the breakup of Yugoslavia, disintegrated.

The Yugoslav Wars

War broke out in 1991 in Slovenia and in Croatia as an attempt by the Serb majority under Milosevic to keep Yugoslavia united, but the war ultimately deteriorated into bloody nationalist fights between Serbs, led by the ruthless Milosevic, and Croats, led by Franjo Tudman.

The war in Bosnia, which began in 1992, grew especially complicated because of the large Muslim population there. Instead of two sides fighting in Bosnia, three sides fought one against another against another. After fierce and bloody fighting for three years, and after UN troops had been deployed to the region, the three sides met in Dayton, Ohio, with President Bill Clinton’s (b. 1946) administration to hammer out a peace agreement.

The Dayton Accords divided Bosnia-Herzegovina into two distinct entities to operate jointly as a single state. The Dayton accords also required the presence of NATO peace-keeping forces to maintain order in the region. Milosevic’s oppression of the Albanian population within the province of Kosovo eventually led to the War in Kosovo in 1996, led by the KLA or Kosovo Liberation Army against the oppressive Serbs. When the government of Albania briefly collapsed in 1997 after election fraud sent the country into anarchy, much of the Albanian army’s weapons ended up in Kosovo, thus heightening the conflict. The world’s leaders really didn’t want to get involved again and basically watched the events unfold. Finally, a U.S.-led coalition of NATO forces launched a bombing campaign to drive the Serbs from Kosovo so the refugees could return home. Conflict in the region continued in Macedonia and Serbia in 2001. To this day, the peace there is tenuous at best as nationalist interests still run high.

Ethnic Cleansing

The factor that finally led to the intervention of outside forces in the former Yugoslavia was the practice known as ethnic cleansing. The term means the removal of an ethnicity or people from a region. Ethnic cleansing can be done by forcing people to flee, by deporting them, or by genocide. The Yugoslav wars featured all three. Horribly violent episodes of fighting, terrorist activity, and guerilla attacks left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced from their homes.

Would You Believe?

Milosevic originally presented a list of over 1,600 witnesses for his defense but the court whittled that number down to about 200. As of late 2005, only about 40 had testified.

As international authorities made their way through the region in the years both during and after the wars, they documented the existence of numerous mass graves. According to testimony and eyewitness accounts, the practice of ethnic cleansing generally followed the pattern of warning an area that it was about to be cleansed, executing the potential political leaders, dividing the population into those who could fight and those who couldn’t, executing the “fighting age” men, and then removing the rest of the undesired population from the area.

Slobodan Milosevic was arrested and handed over to the United Nations in 2001 and charged with war crimes and genocide. The prosecution took two years to prepare the case and the trial has intermittently dragged on ever since.

The trial hit a snag in October 2005, when the court announced that Milosevic, who finally won the right to defend himself, had already used 75 percent of the time allotted him and would receive no extensions of time. Facing the prospect of being accused of staging an unfair trial, which was originally scheduled to end in early 2006, the court has wrangled with the decision to extend Milosevic’s time.

As a Matter of Fact

In 1984, the capital city of Sarajevo served as the host city for the Fourteenth Winter Olympics. The beautiful, multiethnic city captured the hearts and minds of the world with its beauty and hospitality. Then, less than 10 years later, ethnic fighting ripped the region and left the once-glorious city in ruins. Many of the Olympic venues were destroyed in the fighting. After the fighting ended, the city of Sarajevo, hardly multiethnic after the war, began the rebuilding process. In 2000, leaders in Sarajevo mounted a campaign to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Though the International Olympic Committee gave funds for the rebuilding of the city, the IOC declined to officially recognize the city's bid for the games.

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